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Wikipedia at 15: Room to Grow

Andrew LihAt Wikipedia’s annual conference, Andrew Lih’s keynote pointed to exciting new areas of growth, into multimedia (virtual reality!), enriched news, expanded partnerships, less sock puppetry, and a kinder, friendlier way to welcome newcomers.

 Lih noted first that Wikipedia is thriving—with an endowment, rising numbers of very active editors, and partnerships like the kind that made possible the conference. The National Archives Foundation had contributed funds to organize the meeting, and hosted it as well at the National Archives.

 But there’s plenty of room to grow, for an organization that’s now 15 years old. “College students have never known a world without Wikipedia,” he said. “How do we make them realize it’s not just like the water coming out of their tap?”

 Mobile, women, civility.

 With mobile becoming the default access tool, Lih said, Wikipedia needs to make Wikipedia mobile-friendly—even if you want to edit on it. He pointed to the Wiki Data game as a mobile-friendly way to make contributions. And it needs to be easier to learn how to edit Wikipedia—perhaps with some drop-in spaces and on-demand tutorials as well as edit-a-thons like he runs at American University.

 The Wikipedia community needs to reach out to women, people of color and other diverse populations to increase participation. “Some women say that you have to prepare yourself for the ‘buzzsaw experience’ on Wikipedia,” he warned, of the freewheeling criticism that often flows among editors, up to 90 percent of whom are male.

 That might be helped by another Lih recommendation: Wikipedia should get over its resistance to calling itself a social network. “Yes, I know we’re not Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, but we are a collaborative, social network,” he said.

 Experts, News,  and Video.

 Many experts could enrich Wikipedia, he said, but right now there are too many obstacles for many of those busy, and sometimes older and tech-unsavvy people. Could audio and video help capture their wisdom? Could an easier interface work? Do they need to know more about why their input is valuable?

 Lih, himself a journalist and journalism professor, noted that Wikipedia has an enormous reach and geographically diverse network, but has not figured out how to use the platform to make and share news (WikiNews, he warned, is not it). “Don’t compete on the breaking news front,” he said. “We’re not set up for that.” But, he pointed out, there are many ways Wikipedians could enrich the news with interviews, reports from the scene, documentaries, and backgrounders.

 Wikipedia needs to diversity media, he suggested. Video is possible today, even though it’s still mostly a solo act. He pointed to Mozilla Popcorn as a tool to collaborate on video, though. Around the corner, he suggested, is the ability to show 3D or virtual reality (we’re all waiting for open source applications and standards though).  “It’s a shame that Bassel Khartabil [currently in a Syrian prison] couldn’t put his 3D images of Palmyra on Wikipedia,” he said. (They are on Internet Archive.)

 Ethics and standards.

 Among the achievements of Wikipedia this year, he noted, was the establishing of the Donovan House Statement, an agreement among public relations companies to avoid gaming Wikipedia and using sock puppets to promote themselves and their clients. So far, Wikipedia has noticed a couple of violations, he said, which resulted in swift reversion, acknowledgement of the error, and a promise not to repeat.

 “Let’s find out what Wikipedia will look like 15 years from now,” he said, in concluding the opening of the conference.